Tuesday, 5 April 2016

This is London: Life and Death in the World City, by Ben Judah, Review

Ben Judah’s ‘This is London’ has quite rightly caused something of a splash. It’s an investigation into immigrant London, a London in which, as Judah puts it ‘nearly 40 per cent were born abroad, and 5 per cent are living illegally in the shadows’. It’s not a statistical analysis, and no one would claim it was a comprehensive depiction of the migrant experience. Instead it’s a series of remarkably varied personal recollections, from Roma beggars to Arab princesses, through Polish builders, Afghan butchers, Romanian prostitutes and many more besides. Judah is exceptionally good at getting people to open up to him. Usually just by talking to them, gradually gaining their trust, though occasionally he does employ subterfuge, such as when he pretends to be a Russian illegal immigrant fleeing Putin or a Ladbrokes employee carrying out a survey. At times the account is practically Orwellian, in the lengths to which Judah goes to build his story. He sleeps with Roma beggars in tunnels by Hyde Park Corner, and in a doss house with 13 other Romanian men in Barking. He talks to prostitutes, gangsters and spiritual healers as well as the rich and respectable.  And he talks to them well, gaining their trust, leading to interesting revelations. Judah opens by stating ‘I was born in London but I no longer recognize this city. I don’t know if I love the new London or if it frightens me’. Thanks to Judah’s talent we now have a powerful opening into the new London, for good and for ill.

We should, I think, start with the positives. One of the things which most impressed me about London’s new migrants is the extraordinary work ethic which many possess, and which is often passed on to their children. This would explain for example why so many ethnic minorities are currently outperforming, on average, the white British at school. Judah meets Nigerian hospital workers, working long hours to care for the British elderly, and East European builders and cleaners who abhor the notion of a life on welfare. Indeed it’s noticeable how many migrants, especially from Third World nations, tell Judah that they came to Britain hoping to start a business, and that this is still their dream. There’s a powerful entrepreneurial spirit within many migrants, which British Conservatives should do all they can to encourage. Judah for example described Polish builders as ‘people near-identical to the Norman Tebbit fantasy of the working class’, stating that they are ‘Industrious savers. Family people…Fans of Thatcher, the Soviet fighter. Disgusted by trade unionists’. Conservatives should, in short, welcome the work ethnic which many migrants possess and try to encourage their entrepreneurial ambitions so far as is reasonably possible.

However, Judah’s book also highlights dangers. Ways in which the recent mass wave of migrants to London has created challenges, and has the potential to create something altogether more serious. One of the themes which runs through Judah’s book, from his conversations with various new migrants, is that there is an element of ethnic fracture. In short, in his book, London sometimes feels less like a multicultural city and more a collection of mono-cultural blocks rubbing against one other, sometimes in harmony and sometimes not. There’s the Policeman from Nigeria who asserts that ‘London is no longer an English city at all…London is a patchwork of ghettos’. Then there’s Mukhtar, a Somali living in Neasden, who claims that ‘Every community is to their own. Nobody communicates to each other’. A Nigerian mental health worker from Edmonton Green makes the same point, asserting that ‘if push comes to shove you will find people who will be going the path of ethnicity and going the path of groups and religions’. Most unnerving of all is the 13 year old boy in Plaistow, who tells his teacher that when he grows up he wants to go and fight for ISIS.

Judah finds no shortage of racism, including between migrant groups. He records Poles and Romanians using racial insults to describe black and Asian people. More generally several of those he speaks to draw attention to a racial hierarchy, with certain jobs associated with different racial groups. For example Judah speaks to Akwese, an illegal immigrant from Ghana, who ‘says he knows all jobs in London follow the hierarchy. That there is such a thing as African and Polish work’. It seems reasonable to be concerned at the lack of integration which is taking place within and between sections of communities, which should be fought alongside the racial stereotyping which this state of affairs is both encouraged by and encourages. There are positive signs. Judah speaks to a Polish born marriage registrar, who provides moving accounts of multi-racial marriages, relationships which would be strangled at inception in many parts of the world. We should be proud that many can thrive in the UK, and should work to remove the remaining barriers to marriage, and other forms of interaction, between different communities.

There is I think, for some people, a problem of belonging. Take the Afro-Caribbean gangster, who goes by the name of Moses X, who justifies his crime as he claims the rich whites benefit from the ill-gotten gains of their imperialist forbearers. He, and many of the others Judah interviews, lack a strong sense of belonging in London. This is I think a problem which, once again, can be attributed to the twin villains of lack of integration and racism. This lack of belonging, surely, is something which fuels violent gangs and political extremism. The solution is surely something like the ‘2012 Olympic spirit’ though on a larger scale and more permanent. London presented itself as both comfortably multiracial and proudly British. Crowds cheered on Mo Farah with the same ferocity as Greg Rutherford. This, surely, is a good model for the type of London we should try, as Conservatives, to create. A London where people look out for each other, regardless of origin, united by a shared sense of belonging and certain core shared values.

It’s important though, that whilst we make additional efforts to integrate existing minority populations, that we don’t demonize those who want tighter migration controls. One of the strongest themes of Judah’s book is the pace of change, with the cultural identity of areas changing almost beyond recognition in a couple of decades. It is understandable that people may be uncomfortable when this happens to their area, and their concerns shouldn’t be dismissed as mindless prejudice. If we refuse to talk about these issues, if we hide them under a fog of polite silence, we risk appearing out of touch and indifferent, and the beneficiaries would be the far-right.

There are moments of dark humour in Judah’s book, the sort of unfortunate misunderstanding which inevitably occur when different cultures and lifestyles rub against each other. There is the 24 year old Roma-Romanian who thinks the English hate Romanians, and believes this is because Romania was allied to Germany in WWII. There are the children of the super-rich, competing for attention by buying ever more outlandish drinks whilst out table-clubbing in London’s most fashionable districts. Overall Judah’s book may not make you love London any more. Parts of it are uplifting, but others concerning or downright disturbing. But it will almost certainly increase your sympathy towards ordinary working Londoners, especially the migrants, who work hard to get by, and if they can, to thrive.

I would recommend Conservatives read Judah’s account, and not just to increase our appreciation of the work which migrants undertake. Our capital city is changing. Indeed, it’s no longer ‘just’ our capital city, it’s a global city in terms of culture and to some extent outlook. This is fine, up to a point. But there are worrying signs of fracture, of communities living largely parallel lives and of a lack of shared values. Unaddressed this could become dangerous. So we should continue to welcome industrious and ambitious migrants, but make greater efforts to encourage integration and adherence to liberal-democratic values. We should continue to challenge racism and strengthen the sense of a British community, whilst fighting the notion that different communities can live largely independent lives, and that reactionary cultural practices should be tolerated.  

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